Exploratory Essay

Jael Roberts


City College of New York

Exploratory Essay

Gender Roles in Fairy Tales


After reading several fairy tales, from traditional to modern, one thing that has really stood out has been gender roles. Fairytales, as defined by the Miriam-Webster dictionary, are considered to be, in simple terms, a made-up story designed to mislead. However, after much analysis, one can actually draw several life lessons from this form of entertainment. It has always been a wonder if the writers of fairytales actually think about the impact their stories could quite possibly have on children’s lives, or do they just mean to excite. Traditional mainstream stories all seem to have on thing in common, which is the notion of Happily Ever After. The expectation of everything to work out in the end is one of the factors that keep children interested in how the issue they read about reaches to that point of solution. However, the notion of happily ever after is far from reality, which most children have to learn the hard way. In these stories, there is a basic trend where the female character finds herself in a dilemma in which she needs to be saved by the male character, who is the “Prince Charming” of the story. Therefore, the notion of happily ever after causes young children to believe that their roles as victim and hero are already defined by their gender. On the bright side of things, it teaches young boys to be courageous and heroic; however, it also teaches young girls to be weak and helpless until their prince comes to save them. Is this really something we would want our kids to read?

Gender roles in fairy tales also places the father figure as the breadwinner of the household, completely detaching himself from any other aspect of the family. For example, in the story of Cinderella, though her father was not as evil as his wife, he was never involved in the family affairs which allowed Cinderella’s step-mother to treat her the way she did. Also, fairy tales also places women as housewives, which in all fairness to the author, was the way things were in the past when the original fairytales were written. However, with the rise of feminism, which brought about the liberation of women, we were able to see women taking on roles previously assumed by men. This poses a problem for the young girls of modern day who read these stories and think that the role of a housewife is the role they are meant to play, as opposed to wanting to seize the opportunities presented to them, resulting from the hard work of feminists over the years. One of the most important issues presented by fairytales is the misconception of the importance of one’s appearance. If one were to take anything from reading the mainstream fairytales (i.e Cinderella, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White etc.), it would be that attractiveness is the most important attribute that a woman can possess, and is often an indicator of chances of future happiness (Neikirk, 2014). According to Baker, a study was done of the evolution of 168 tales that originated in 1857, which discovered a strong correlation between the number of times a book was reproduced and the number of times the main character’s appearance was stated. This is proof that girls are being taught that they need to be beautiful to be happy in life. Similarly, fairytales have been known to associate the lack of beauty with suspicion. In a story such as Cinderella, where the “evil stepsisters” were less attractive than their sister and as such, had nasty attitudes and treated her horribly. Similarly, in the story of Snow White, the fairy who tricked the heroine into consuming the rotten fruit which put her under the spell was described as very old and unattractive. Once again reinforcing the notion that unattractiveness has a direct correlation to one’s moral identity.

The role of males in fairytales has made very little change over the years. They have always been portrayed as the heads of the economic, political and familial aspects of the story. The males, if ever present in the story, tend to be rich, powerful and handsome, yet lacking in substance. They seem to be the shallowest of the characters, only focusing on the ideals of beauty. Often they fall in love at first sight based on the heroine’s appearance and is either devastated by her loss, or end up living happily ever after, although they know nothing about their bride.

The existence of gender roles in fairy tales is not all bad, as it provides a positive depiction of how men should treat women. This is a good lesson for young boys to learn, especially in a world where domestic violence is rampant. You see this in several movies and television shows, usually to raise awareness on the issue. However, it may not always be perceived as such. It is human nature for each person to interpret things in their own way, regardless of the fact that two persons may be witnessing the same thing at the same time. Therefore, while one person may actually receive the message as it is intended, another might miss the point and be more fascinated with the act of domestic violence and decide to follow suit.


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